South Sudan President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar have expressed hope for a breakthrough as they kicked off peace talks in neighbouring Sudan – but there was no sign of any real concessions by either side.
The bitter rivals met in Khartoum on Monday for a new round of discussions after a meeting last week in Ethiopia ended without a political agreement for South Sudan’s ruinous civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions.
“I came to this meeting with an open mind and hope my brother Riek did the same,” Kiir said at the beginning of the talks, which were mediated by Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir and also attended by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
“I see the need to stop this unnecessary war and hope Dr Riek does as well.”
Kiir said disagreements continued over “division of power and security arrangements”, in an apparent reference to possible rebel representation in the South Sudanese government and the “integration” of rebel and government forces.
For his part, Machar told reporters: “We came to Khartoum to look for peace”, although he said his own invitation had come “late”, without elaborating.
“There is a chance for peace and there is a way to achieve peace,” added Machar.
Sudan’s state-run news agency SUNA quoted Museveni as saying that the meeting resulted in “some points that enable South Sudan’s people to enjoy peace”, without offering any further details.
Two years after gaining independence, South Sudan descended into civil war in December 2013 when Kiir accused his then-deputy, Machar, of plotting a coup.
The war has created Africa’s largest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide and left millions near famine.
Multiple ceasefires and peace efforts have been unfruitful thus far. A power-sharing peace attempt failed when Machar fled his vice president post, and the country, amid fresh fighting in the capital, Juba, in July 2016.
Last week’s face-to-face meeting in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, was the first for Kiir and Machar in nearly two years.
Following the meeting, South Sudan’s government rejected the idea of Machar returning again as Kiir’s deputy.
Leaders from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an East African regional bloc, also said Machar could leave house arrest in South Africa but was not welcome in any member country except to participate in peace talks.
Kenya is expected to host another round of talks between the rivals in the weeks ahead.
Meanwhile, the United States, the top humanitarian donor to South Sudan, expressed growing impatience with the warring sides, sponsoring a resolution adopted by the UN Security Council early this month that threatens an arms embargo on South Sudan and sanctions against six people, including the country’s chief of defence, if fighting does not stop and an agreement is reached.
The new US ambassador to South Sudan told The Associated Press news agency in an interview that Washington is sceptical of the latest peace talks.
“If it’s just a repeat of the failed 2015 agreement (that returned Machar to his role as Kiir’s deputy) it’s not going to work,” Ambassador Thomas Hushek said.